The prospect of making any major house design decision, like picking out flooring, cabinets or counters, turns my intestines into a Gordian knot. Like most people, I fret: How will this choice look with everything else in the house? Is it too boring? Too novel? How will it affect resale? Will it stand the test of time? Will it make my hips look big?
And that's just one design choice. When new-home buyers have to make all those design decisions at once, they might as well just plan on dissolving into sobbing puddles of self-doubt.
I know. I have been in those design showrooms, struggling to make humongous, bank-account draining decisions, with long-term consequences, biting my fingernails to their moons, while the design-room salesperson impatiently waits with raised eyebrows.
At first, you think, Wow! Cool! I get to pick out everything I want for my own house! Next thing, you're as frozen as a pigeon-covered statue in the park.
Ironically, the pandemic has helped homeowners get unstuck, said Gena Kirk, head of the design studio for KB Home, a national builder with projects in 45 markets and eight states. For 20 years, Kirk has helped new home buyers through the daunting design decision labyrinth, a process she says is both "exhilarating and exhausting," especially for first-time buyers, which make up 65% of the company's customers.
"Covid pushed more customers to use the online studio tools we have available in most of our markets," she said. So rather than stand stymied in the showroom, they go through the design process at home using web-guided tools, and take as long as they want to mull their options before committing.
"The in-studio experience is still essential," Kirk said, "because there customers can touch the counters, feel and open the cabinets and put their feet on floors. But if they come in better prepared, they don't feel so overwhelmed."
Today, although more customers are back to visiting showrooms, more home buyers are still starting their process online. "The virtual experience followed by an in-person visit is the perfect combination," she said.
For those looking to choose finishes or fixtures for a new house or to remodel an existing one, here's what Kirk says is in, out, and likely to stay:
Cabinets: Customers still like white cabinets; however, the whites are getting warmer, leaning toward bone and beige. Gray is fading, and dark espresso and cherry wood cabinets have been out for a while. Buyers also want natural wood finishes in taupe and beige tones.
Counters: Quartz counters, especially ones with open veiny patterns, lead the field, and are what almost 75% of KB buyers choose. The rest go with granite, which traditional buyers sill like. Here again, counter colors are starting to warm up. "We're moving away from stark black, white and gray counters, toward shades of creamy white, beige and taupe," she said. In higher-end houses, marble is still strong. Counter edges are more often square. Fewer have rounded bullnose edges.
Flooring: Luxury vinyl plank ranks high among buyers because it offers the look of wood for a lower price and less maintenance. Floor colors are also getting warmer, as buyers steer away from gray and even "greige" toward taupe and natural wood tones. Flooring that has red or cherry undertones are out, though black floors are hot among high-end buyers.
Appliances: Stainless steel remains a strong choice for appliances. Black stainless briefly gained popularity until the supply chain curbed its availability. Plus, it is also prone to scratching. "I steer buyers away from plain white or solid black appliances, which feel dated," Kirk said.
Lighting fixtures and hardware: That said, black lighting fixtures are everywhere, and have stood the test of time. Today's customers like round light fixtures, open cage styles, '70s retro fixtures and midcentury modern looks. Brushed nickel remains a popular finish, while oil-rubbed bronze fixtures are o-u-t, along with heavily embellished ones. On windows, black hardware is also a current favorite, said Betty Brandolino, founder and creative director for Fresh Twist Studio, a Hunter Douglas window covering gallery, in Elmhurst, Ill. "We are seeing less wood, and no more carved, fancy finials. Buyers want clean and classic." Gold finishes are also popular, especially when paired with black. Brushed nickel remains home buyers' first choice for faucets, because it pairs well with black light fixtures and drapery hardware.
Technology: Covid has given touchless technology a huge boost, as customers overwhelmingly choose touch-free doorknobs, faucets and lights. They are also embracing smart appliances that they can control from their phones, Brandolino said. "The newer low-voltage power window shades let you raise and lower blinds on your phone with your finger, even when you're not home."
Biggest mistake: "My main advice to all new buyers is to not get swept up by the trend du jour," Kirk said. "Choose neutral finishes you like that also have staying power." Later, if your home needs an update, look for inexpensive changes. Updating paint, light fixtures, backsplashes or drawer or drapery hardware can make a significant difference and cost a lot less than replacing cabinets, counters or floors.
Marni Jameson is the author of six home and lifestyle books, including "What to Do With Everything You Own to Leave the Legacy You Want."